Cold Case Went 'by the Book'

Times Staff Writer

911. What's your emergency?

"I have a 2-year-old that's wandered off," Marie Wu told the operator. "I'm hoping one of my neighbors grabbed him."

There was no hint of panic in Wu's voice. She says she felt embarrassed, apologetic. She expected to find her diaper-clad son, Cecil Turner, "eating cookies in the apartment of some neighbor" in the Villa Marguerite apartments in Mission Viejo.

She didn't, and a massive search soon was underway. The child's body was found the next day, Aug. 13, 1996, near a creek behind the apartment complex. Cecil Turner, known as C.T., had been suffocated.

The killing of a towheaded toddler in one of Southern California's safest communities sparked widespread horror and revulsion. In such cases, the public craves closure, the reassurance provided by a prompt arrest and conviction.

After seven years, there has been no arrest, nor any closure, in the death of Cecil Turner.

For those seven years, Orange County sheriff's detectives have stuck doggedly to the belief that the boy's stepfather killed him, possibly with Wu's help, and that she has been covering up for her husband all this time.

Twice, detectives have asked the Orange County district attorney's office to file charges against Marie and Feilong Wu. Twice, prosecutors have refused, citing insufficient evidence.

Confidential Sheriff's Department records, released in connection with a lawsuit by the Wus, permit a detailed look at the investigation for the first time.

From the start, detectives doubted that the boy had strayed from his apartment and been abducted, as his mother insisted.

Yet investigators could find no evidence directly implicating the Wus -- no fingerprints, no witnesses. Their belief in the couple's guilt was based on the circumstances, on the knowledge that family members are often responsible for the killings of small children, and on a polygraph exam that detected deceptiveness on the part of Feilong Wu.

More than 2,000 pages of the internal documents show how detectives' suspicions hardened, despite the dearth of evidence, and how their attention remained riveted on the Wus long after the investigation hit a dead end.

After the family moved from California in 2000, investigators tracked them across the country, the documents show. They used contacts in the Justice Department to try to freeze Feilong's application for U.S. citizenship.

They had C.T.'s older sister questioned by a social worker in Texas, believing that the girl might implicate her mother and stepfather. She did not.

Though they were never arrested or charged, the Wus say the publicity surrounding the investigation, and statements by sheriff's officials describing them as suspects, nearly ruined their lives.

Feilong, the family breadwinner, lost his job as a diving coach soon after C.T.'s death. The family was evicted from their Mission Viejo apartment that Christmas Eve and their car was repossessed. Marie said they would have become homeless if a Dana Point church had not paid for an apartment for several months.

The couple now live in Las Vegas, where Feilong, a former world-class platform diver, performs with Cirque du Soleil. The Wus say detectives were right to investigate the possibility that they killed C.T.

"But there comes a time," said Feilong, 33, "when you have to open your mind and look for something else. That was something they didn't do. They continued to pursue the same theories they always had, and they never got anywhere."

Sheriff's detectives and their higher-ups declined to discuss the case. But in legal papers and arguments in the Wus' lawsuit, lawyers for the Sheriff's Department indicated that investigators have not changed their opinion.

They still believe C.T. was the victim not of an unseen stranger, but of Marie and Feilong Wu.

A 76-Step Stairway

When sheriff's deputies responded to Marie's 911 call that summer morning -- Monday, Aug. 12, 1996 -- Feilong told them that he was the last member of the family to see C.T.

Feilong said that after getting up about 7:30 a.m., he had carried the boy from his crib and put him on the living room sofa so he could watch cartoons. Then, Feilong said, he went for a jog.

He said he returned 45 minutes later to find his wife and stepdaughter rushing about in their nightgowns, searching for the baby of the family.

The couple said that C.T. had managed to get out of the apartment before and had once tried to follow his stepfather down a steep, 76-step stairway leading to a jogging path next to Oso Creek, which runs through a ravine behind the Villa Marguerite apartments (since renamed the Larkspur Canyon apartments).

Scores of sheriff's deputies, volunteers and other searchers tramped through the ravine, assisted by bloodhounds and helicopters.

In the hubbub, two sheriff's detectives invited Marie into their unmarked car and questioned her in detail about her marriage to Feilong and his relations with his two stepchildren -- C.T. and his sister, Bryttnie, who was about to turn 4.

Marie, then 30, told the detectives that both children got along well with Feilong and that C.T. even called him "Daddy."

Questioned separately, Feilong, then 26, said the only arguments he had had with Marie were about her smoking. He wanted her to quit.

The detectives learned that Feilong, a former member of the Chinese national diving team, had come to this country under the sponsorship of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. He and Marie met in 1994 as college students in Austin, where he was an assistant diving coach at the University of Texas. They were married the following year.

They moved to Southern California in 1996 after he was offered a job with the Mission Viejo Nadadores, an amateur water sports club that has produced a dozen Olympic gold medalists. The family had been living in the Villa Marguerite apartments for three weeks when C.T. disappeared.

By focusing on the Wus initially, detectives were going by the book. Crime statistics show that when small children die violent deaths, family members or caregivers are most often responsible.

Looking into Feilong's employment, investigators found what they considered further cause for suspicion. Because he was in this country on a student visa and lacked a work permit, the aquatic club had put Marie on its payroll and was issuing paychecks in her name.

Det. Tom Giffin confronted her about this the morning after C.T.'s disappearance. While searchers continued looking for the boy, investigators had brought the Wus to a sheriff's station in Laguna Niguel for further questioning.

Giffin told Marie that by collecting a paycheck from the Nadadores, she was committing fraud. He suggested that if the couple practiced deception on such mundane things, they might lie about serious things too.

"Do you all really suspect Feilong?" Marie asked.

"He's not above suspicion," Giffin replied, according to a transcript of the 72-minute session. "What we'd like to do is have you interviewed on a polygraph."

"Oh, I'd love it," Marie replied. "Right now."

Feilong, who was interviewed in a separate room for 45 minutes, also agreed to a polygraph, but not before questioning whether the results would be reliable.

"You know, we had a long day yesterday, and we didn't sleep last night," he told Giffin. "We're emotional and we are upset."

That afternoon, Feilong and Marie were brought to Brea police headquarters, where a sergeant, Tom Flenniken, conducted polygraph tests for the Sheriff's Department.

As Feilong had expected, his exam did not go well. Flenniken reported that Feilong showed signs of deception when he denied harming C.T. or knowing the child's whereabouts.

Standards adopted by the two national associations of polygraph operators say that suspects should not be tested the same day they are interrogated.

Dan Sosnowski, spokesman for the American Polygraph Assn., said a delay of several days or a week is advisable. "Doing it the same day is an absolutely terrible way to conduct a good exam," he said. "The person is just too emotionally wound up."

Linda J. Quinonez, a board member and former president of the American Assn. of Police Polygraphists, said: "The tests should never have been administered on the same day they had been interrogated."

Flenniken, who has not been certified by either organization, declined to comment.

Marie's polygraph showed no signs of deception. It was now after 10 p.m. Sheriff's Det. Mark Simon told Marie that C.T.'s body had been found seven hours earlier in dense brush near the east bank of Oso Creek, a quarter-mile northeast of the Wus' apartment.

"Oh my God," she said.

"OK, I do want to tell you, Marie, that I suspect your husband," Simon said.

"I don't," she replied. "He didn't do it."

The Body's Signs

The detectives' hunch was that Feilong had smothered C.T. sometime after Marie went to sleep on Sunday, Aug. 11, 1996, and that he had carried the child's body to its resting place beside the creek.

In questioning the couple, detectives probed various theories as to what might have triggered the killing. Perhaps Feilong was angry because he thought Marie was spoiling the boy. Perhaps C.T. had interrupted the couple's lovemaking that night.

Results of an autopsy conducted Wednesday, Aug. 14, the day after the body was discovered, fortified investigators' suspicions. C.T.'s stomach contained lumps of what appeared to be hot dog meat. The Wus had said they fed him hot dogs between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

To autopsy surgeon Richard I. Fukumoto, the limited degree of digestion indicated that the child had died two to four hours after eating. That would place the time of death no later than 12:30 a.m. Monday, which meant that C.T. could not have been alive at 7:30 that morning, as Feilong maintained.

But Fukumoto's findings did not mesh with those of deputy Orange County Coroner Richard McAnally, who examined the boy's body shortly after it was found in the ravine.

McAnally noticed that the child's abdomen and legs were still gripped by rigor mortis, the temporary rigidity of the muscles after death. Completing his exam about 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 13, McAnally estimated that C.T. had been dead for 24 hours -- 36 at the most.

That would mean the child was killed no earlier than 5 a.m. Monday and could have been alive at 7:30 that morning or later.

A few days after the autopsy, detectives summoned the Wus for further questioning and confronted them with Fukumoto's report. Det. Roger Neumeister dismissed Marie's suggestion that C.T. had been abducted after wandering from the apartment.

"There's a problem with that," Neumeister said. He asked Marie what time C.T. had dinner the night before he disappeared.

"About 8:30," she said.

Simon explained what the problem was. "Within four hours -- tops, five -- that stomach should be completely empty," he said. "So, what does that mean to you?"

"That he died sometime during the night," Marie replied.

"And what else does that mean?" Simon answered his own question: "He could not have been placed on that couch and watched TV like Feilong says."

In the weeks and months that followed, unnamed sheriff's officials were quoted in news reports describing the Wus variously as suspects in C.T.'s death, as the only suspects and as "the focus of the investigation."

Yet evidence against them was scant. There were no witnesses linking Marie or Feilong to the slaying. Their fingerprints had not been found on objects the killer had used to obscure the child's body in the brush, including the base of a rubber traffic cone.

Investigators took fiber samples from items in the Wus' apartment and their car -- clothing, upholstery, stuffed toys and a duffel bag -- to see if they could be matched to greenish-yellow fibers found on C.T.'s body. The theory was that the fibers were transferred to the child's body by whoever transported him to the ravine.

Laboratory analysis found no matches.

Feilong's polygraph test added little if anything to the detectives' case. Polygraph results generally are not admissible in court. The timing of the test and Flenniken's lack of certification made the results especially vulnerable to challenge.

Nor did detectives turn up anything suspicious in Feilong's background.

He had no criminal record in China. Friends and co-workers spoke highly of him. Hongping Li, a diving coach for the Mission Viejo Nadadores who had recruited Wu, told investigators that "Feilong treated his stepchildren better than their own mother did."

"Hongping said it was 'very hard for him to believe' that Feilong could have murdered C.T.," according to a Sheriff's Department summary of the interview.

The detectives' hunch that C.T.'s sister, Bryttnie, had incriminating information about her mother and stepfather also did not pan out.

Bryttnie, who had shared a bedroom with C.T., was questioned by an Orange County social worker, Kim Maddock-Trujillo, the day the boy's body was found. Maddock-Trujillo asked the girl whether Feilong had "run away with your brother," according to a transcript of the conversation.

"No," replied Bryttnie, whose fourth birthday was two weeks away.

"Did C.T. like Feilong?" the social worker asked.

"Yep."

"Did you see Feilong do anything to C.T.?"

"No."

Shame and Litigation

The Wus say the months after C.T.'s death were an ordeal. After Feilong lost his job, Marie worked at discount stores -- a Target and a TJ Maxx -- earning barely enough to keep the family clothed and fed. Lacking a car, she walked to work for two years.

Once, she said, a female shopper at Target, recognizing her from media coverage, said: "Oh, you're that woman who murdered her child." Marie cut her hair short, hoping to recover her anonymity.

In May 1997, the Wus filed suit against Orange County, the Sheriff's Department and three detectives, contending that they had been defamed and their civil rights violated.

They demanded access to the sheriff's investigative files as part of the exchange of information known as discovery. Superior Court Judge Sheila Fell ruled that the Wus were entitled to the material. The Sheriff's Department objected.

An appeals court said the department would not have to surrender the case file as long as its investigation was active. The court ordered periodic hearings in Superior Court on the status of the case.

Under renewed pressure to show progress, detectives tried once more to find out if Bryttnie knew anything.

In May 1999, they arranged for a Texas social worker to visit the girl's school and question her about C.T.'s death.

At the time, she was living with Marie's parents in Austin while Marie and Feilong stayed in California, dealing with the Sheriff's Department and looking for work.

Bryttnie, then 6, gave essentially the same answers she had given to the Orange County social worker three years earlier. She said nothing that hinted at wrongdoing by her mother or stepfather.

Hidden Microphones

By the summer of 2000, investigators had long since exhausted their leads. Worried that the courts would order them to hand their files over to the Wus, sheriff's officials brought in a "cold case" detective to jump-start the investigation.

Det. Larry Pool hung his hopes on a 4-year-old audiotape.

After taking their polygraph exams on Aug. 13, 1996, the Wus had been ushered into a break room at Brea police headquarters and left alone. Two hidden microphones recorded their conversation. Detectives were disappointed to discover that the tape was barely understandable.

In August 2000, Pool sent it to the FBI's Engineering Research Facility in Quantico, Va., to see if the sound quality could be enhanced.

In an accompanying letter, he explained his predicament:

"The parents are suing Orange County and County Counsel fears the investigation's documentation will be turned over to the parents if we don't produce a viable lead by their next scheduled court date."

The tape, Pool wrote, "seems like one of the best pieces of potential evidence we have."

FBI technicians were able to make the conversation audible. But it did not provide the break Pool had been hoping for.

"So, what's cooking?" Feilong asked his wife, according to a transcript.

"They think you did it," Marie replied.

"You think so?"

"No. They do.... They suspected you from the beginning. You were the last one to see him."

"Yeah. That's right." Feilong said with a sigh.

"I trust you," Marie said.

At one point, she complained: "They won't even tell me how he died. Did they tell you?"

"No," Feilong replied. "They kept pushing me. 'Tell me [why you] did it.' Just like that, you know. They said, 'You don't seem to be too upset, you know.' "

"Well, look at me," Marie said. "He's my son.... I can't cry.... I'm in shock."

Pool's interest in the Wus did not diminish. In September 2000, he arranged through contacts at the Justice Department to "place a hold on any attempt" by Feilong "to become a naturalized citizen," according to a memo he wrote.

Earlier that summer, Feilong had gotten a job offer from Cirque du Soleil and had gone to Montreal for training. When Pool learned of this, he contacted the performing troupe's personnel department and asked about Wu's chances of getting a permanent job, records show.

Around this time, Marie's parents left Texas to retire in rural Roseland, Va. Because Feilong was in Montreal, Marie and Bryttnie went to live with the elderly couple.

This did not escape Pool's attention either. At his request, the Nelson County (Va.) Sheriff's Department kept their house under surveillance, records show.

Late last year, Feilong became eligible for U.S. citizenship. He applied and was given an appointment last summer for a citizenship test and interview. But the appointment was canceled without explanation, he said. It could not be determined whether Pool's earlier communication with the Justice Department played any role.

Winning Access to File

In March 2002, a judge ruled that the sheriff's investigation was no longer active. The department surrendered its 2,196-page case file to the Wus in stages, and the couple prepared to bring their defamation suit to trial this fall.

They hoped for monetary damages and a measure of redemption. They wanted to show that sheriff's investigators had violated their rights and ruined their reputations.

Sheriff's Department lawyers served notice that they would present in civil court the case that prosecutors had deemed too flimsy for criminal court. They would try to prove that the Wus were guilty.

The courtroom showdown never materialized. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in August, ruling that California public employees have immunity from such claims.

Case No. 96-41426, the killing of Cecil Turner, remains officially unsolved.

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